Marking its further commitment to rural connectivity, UK mobile operator EE plans to upgrade its 4G infrastructure in more than 2,000 areas by June 2024 as part of the UK government’s Shared Rural Network (SRN) initiative to extend coverage in rural areas.
First proposed in October 2019, the £1.3bn SRN programme aims to wipe so-called “notspots” from the map, providing high-quality 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025. This followed years of complaints by mobile consumers and businesses that the major political parties had consistently failed rural businesses by lacking a credible plan to improve mobile 4G and 5G coverage.
In practice, the SRN is made possible through a partnership between the UK’s four major telecoms operators – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – which will invest in a shared network of new and existing phone masts, overseen by a jointly owned company called Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited (DMSL).
The four networks have committed to legally binding contracts and a £532m investment to close almost all “partial notspots” by 2024. This will be supplemented by more than £500m in government funding to eliminate “total notspots”. The coverage commitments will be enforced by UK regulator Ofcom.
Phase one of the scheme was announced on 27 January 2021, with launch plans by Vodafone, Three UK and O2. EE came on board in February, making a commitment to upgrade its 4G network in 110 areas to bring improved connectivity to each UK nation.
In April, the government proposed law changes to boost ongoing efforts to improve connectivity for people who live, work and travel in rural areas. The reforms were designed to remove one of the biggest barriers to better mobile coverage in the countryside by reducing build time and costs for new infrastructure while protecting rural areas by minimising any visual impact.
Under the proposals, mobile companies will be allowed to make new and existing masts up to five metres taller and two metres wider than current rules permit. This is designed to increase the range of masts and allow operators to fit more equipment onto them so they can be shared more easily.
EE has upgraded its 4G network in more than 800 areas across the UK since the SRN deal was signed – 449 in England, 265 in Scotland, 97 in Wales and 42 in Northern Ireland. It has now pledged to extend 4G in a further 1,532 areas by mid-2024 – 925 in England, 359 in Scotland, 125 in Northern Ireland and 123 in Wales – totalling 2,385 in this phase of the programme. All sites have been made available for other operators to share under the SRN scheme.
Commenting on the latest move, BT Group chief executive Philip Jansen said: “Today, we’ve made a renewed commitment to boost rural connectivity, helping improve mobile performance regardless of location. The investment BT has made in rural areas means we have the infrastructure in place to extend our 4G coverage footprint even further, minimising the number of new sites we need to build to ensure everyone has access to reliable connectivity.
“EE is still the only provider of 4G coverage in many places across the UK, and we encourage other operators to recognise the opportunity sharing our sites offers to fill gaps in their networks.”
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